A year after going 20-for-20 in selecting pitchers, the Angels went back to addressing their mound issues and grabbed Tennessee flame-throwing righty Ben Joyce with the No. 89 pick in the third round of the 2022 MLB Draft.
It was the Angels' second pick of the Draft after they forfeited their second-round selection when signing Noah Syndergaard. After going with a positional player with their first pick -- shortstop Zach Neto -- the club added some major velocity to its farm system on Monday with MLB Pipeline's No. 112-ranked Draft prospect.
Joyce’s calling card is his special right arm, as his velocity went viral in February after he hit 103 mph in his second appearance for Tennessee. The strong 6-foot-5 pitcher is the hardest thrower in college baseball history, boasting a fastball that averaged 101 mph and topped out at 105.5 mph this season. The only player to have thrown a faster pitch at the MLB level? Yankees reliever Aroldis Chapman.
Joyce’s fastball arrives on a flat-approach angle from a low slot, which makes it extremely difficult to catch up to when he works up in the zone. The heater features some arm-side run, but can straighten out and get hit when he doesn't command it well.
The pitch that caught everyone’s attention was developed during his pre-college years. Joyce entered high school at just 5-foot-4 and weighed around 100 pounds, but he eventually sprouted up to 6-foot-1. The transformation allowed him to start flirting with triple digits on the radar gun by the start of his senior year.
It also brought about growth-plate issues -- and intense pain -- that forced Joyce to halt playing baseball for weeks at a time. The missed games negatively impacted Joyce's recruiting, leading him to start his collegiate career at Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tenn.
Joyce's transformation continued at the JUCO level as he grew four more inches and started reaching 100 mph with relative ease. Despite the velocity, Joyce had his issues in 2020, giving up 14 walks and 11 earned runs in 20 2/3 innings, but he was still able to strike out 35 batters.
Even with the struggles, Joyce caught the attention of Division I colleges and transferred to Tennessee in the fall of 2021. He didn't have the start he was hoping for when he became a Volunteer, as he was dealt with another setback in the form of Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss the entire 2021 campaign.
Yet, the setback proved to be beneficial in the long run for Joyce, as the Tennessee staff dug in on his delivery, worked on his alignment toward home plate and modeled professional-strength breaking balls. During the rehab progress, weeks before the season that would change his life, he finally felt something click.
“That’s when I was like ‘wait,’” Joyce told the Washington Post, "‘This might be better than it was before.’”
He was right. Joyce went on to collect 53 K’s in 32 1/3 innings, producing a 2.23 ERA and dozens of eye-popping video clips this season. It was enough to convince the Angels to take a chance on a pitcher with a lot of potential.
“Now that he’s been to a combine and interviewed with people and people know who he is, they realize he’s genetically gifted, but also a maniac worker and incredibly disciplined,” University of Tennessee coach Tony Vitello told The Sporting News. “Now, just because you work hard doesn’t mean you’re going to throw 105, but there’s a reason everything has happened the way that it has, and part of that is a fresh arm, too.”
Joyce will have a lot to work on with his game, starting with mixing his pitches. Eighty percent of his college offerings were fastballs, even though he also throws a low-90s changeup and a slider that he told The Athletic (subscription required) this spring is a work in progress. If thrown well, said pitch is capable of making hitters look silly, as he got some ugly swings and misses with it while batters geared up for his fastball. That said, when Joyce struggles to throw the slider over the plate, he can get people looking with a changeup that features nice fade at its best.
Other concerns for Joyce are the lack of experience (53 collegiate innings), especially in high-leverage situations, durability (only once has he pitched on consecutive days) and command. But with some fine tuning and good health, he has the raw materials to be an elite, must-watch reliever.
“Someone is going to get rewarded for their investment, at the very worst because of the type of kid and the worker they’re going to have around the other pitchers,” Vitello said.